Grammar – Hogwash Rule #1

Grammar – Hogwash Rules

A writing professor once told me that “you can only break the rules once you’ve shown that you know them.” Being a rule breaker at heart, I decided to set about learning the rules of grammar so that I could break them with abandon. (Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that I began my quest for rule breaking by following a rule.)

As I set about educating myself, it soon became all too clear that the only way to learn the English language is to accept that some of the rules are just total nonsense. Yes, I said it. I’m an English teacher, and I’m saying it aloud – or writing it, rather –  sometimes “because I said so” is the rule. If you can get past that, then you can learn grammar.

Hogwash Rule #1

“i” before “e” except after “c” (specifically as it applies to the “there” or “their” situation)

I am pretty sure every student in the United States had this mantra drilled into his or her brain starting in kindergarten. What sucks is when you get to 4th or 5th grade, and, being a good little kiddo, you follow the rule only to have a giant red slash slicing through your first “thier.” So, what’s the deal, English Teacher??

Basically the “i before e” rule is mostly a rule, but sometimes not – or as I like to call it – a hogwash rule. I don’t think teachers teach you these rules to set you up for failure; I think sometimes it’s just easier to teach a rule of thumb. So, when it comes the “there-their-they’re rule,” what do you do?

Here’s my advice:

First, ALL of the “there” sounding words begin with “the.” ALL of them. Why? Because I said so.

Now, how do you decide which “there” you want to put in your writing? Here are your choices:




If you look at the first option “there,” you will notice a “here” after the T. Most everyone knows that “here” is a place, right? So, if you think of “there” as a place, then you know how to use it.

“Is the bus here yet?”

“No, the bus is over there.”

Next, let’s take a look at “their.”

Notice how after the “the” there is an “i”? I like to think of the “i” as  person.

“I want to take there car” doesn’t work. What’s the test? The sentence has a “place” owning the car instead of a person. So in that sentence you could put “I want to take here car,” which makes no sense. Instead, let’s put a person in the sentence. “I want to take their car.” NOW it makes sense.

Finally, how do we deal with “they’re”?

If you watched Sesame Street at all as a kid, you remember the song “which one of these is not like the others.” Well, here we have our oddball. What makes this one different is the apostrophe. Just remember that anytime you see one of those little guys, the word is either missing something or owning something. If more than a single letter “s” follows the apostrophe, then the word is missing something. In this case, we have a “mash up” of they and are, making the contraction they’re.

So, let’s do the math again.

“I want to take they’re car” turns into “I want to take they are car,” which doesn’t make sense. (Unless of course they are car is a band or something, but then you would have capitalized it, right?)

“I want to take there car,” we covered in the first example with “I want to take here car.”

“I want to take their car,” is the one that works.

So to sum up:

There is always a place.

Their is always 2 or more people.

They’re is always 2 or more people doing something.

ALL of them begin with “the”

Now that we’ve covered the pesky “there-their-they’re” problem, what hogwash rule would you like to have cleared up next?